Today, it is believed that 87 percent of teens have encountered cyberbullying in some form. This number is up dramatically from just a few years ago, when only 27 percent of our kids acknowledged witnessing these cruel online behaviors. That means that all of our school assemblies, news programs, and campaigns to delete cyberbullying aren’t working and the rates have now tripled!
This is disheartening, because we often hear about cyberbullying and the impact it is having on tweens and teenagers. Victims of cyberbullying often experience depression, loneliness, anxiety, and thoughts of self harm. If those effects aren’t frightening enough, kids who are cyberbullied tend to remove themselves from their friends and favorite activities while their grades often decline.
To make matters worse, cyberbullying happens in a variety of ways and is always changing with new technologies. Regardless of how the cyberbullying takes place, this is a dangerous threat facing all of our sons and daughters as they grow. However, there is hope. Childhood is the perfect time to begin dealing with cyberbullying so we can stop it from occurring or spiraling out of control before it even begins.
Building Empathy Early to Prevent Bullying Later
One of the best ways we can combat cyberbullying is to help our small kids develop empathy. We need to help our sons and daughters understand what other people feel or more importantly, how they would feel if they were in the same situation. Thankfully, empathy is a learned trait that can be taught.
We can teach our boys and girls how to “walk in another person’s shoes” and develop this skill as they grow. This is good news, because research shows that children who are empathetic tend to perform better in school, social groups, and even as adults in the workforce. Small kids learn this skill at different rates, because we all know a 3 year old won’t be able to understand the power of words like a 6 year old.
Trying to describe or explain cyberbullying to small children can be difficult, because typically young kids are very concrete, literal thinkers. As a child ages, they will develop abstract thinking skills so they can comprehend objects, principles, morals, and ideas that aren’t actually present or visible. However, this higher level of comprehension typically doesn’t develop until between the ages of 11 and 16.
Explaining Cyberbullying to Small Children
We can help small children build on their natural empathy to comprehend the true scope of cyberbullying and overcome their lack of abstract thinking by implementing the following suggestions:
● Lead by example by modeling kindness and respect. Avoid name calling, yelling obscenities, and being respectful when you talk about others.
● Clearly define bullying and empower them with coping skills in case they encounter these behaviors in real life or online. Let them know they should seek an adult, avoid arguing, and stand up for themselves safely.
● Keep the definition simple for young children. They will not comprehend the true scope of cyberbullying until they get older and too much information can confuse them or lead to some very grown up discussions a child isn’t prepared to handle. However, they can understand how someone feels if they are getting picked on or called names.
● Start early when it comes to discussing bullying and gradually build on this basic foundation as a child ages. Make sure to include cyberbullying when a child begins using technology.
● Use stories and movies to help children process the topic of bullying and show how words can hurt.
● Role play scenarios that involve bullying and teach one or two methods to diffuse the situation. You don’t have to go out of your way, just bring it up while playing dolls or Legos and use playtime to build empathy.
● Communicate, communicate, and communicate. It sounds cliche, but we need to keep the dialogue lines open. This process starts when our boys and girls are young. As they grow, we need to encourage them to talk to us about everything and anything so they know we are there to support them or help them solve problems they face.
What tips do you have for explaining cyberbullying or developing empathy when it comes to small children?
Amy Williams is a free-lance journalist based in Southern California and mother of two. As a parent, she enjoys spreading the word on positive parenting techniques in the digital age and raising awareness on issues like cyberbullying and online safety.